Into the Woods
Cherrywood Neighbors' Journey of Change
First, let's get the name straight. Is this Cherrywood? Or Maplewood? Wilshire Wood? Delwood? And would that be Delwood I or Delwood II? Or is that Dellwood with two "L"s? And where, exactly, is French Place? Over the years, all these names have been attached to parts of the territory north of Manor Road, east of I-35, and west of the airport. Which, as we all know to the point of numbness, will soon be not an airport. Instead, Mueller will be a NewUrb village, with state offices on land basically extorted from the city, gussied up with the de rigeur transit-oriented town center and residential neighborhoods. Will they be Cherrywood? Or perhaps Muellerwood?
The different names reflect the turbulent times, ironic historical cycles, and repeated demographic shifts, of these - East Austin? Central Austin? North Central East Austin? - districts. Compared to most in-town neighborhoods, the Cherrywood area is of recent vintage. But in their few decades of existence, these boroughs have been both central and suburban, established and transitional, gentrified and traditional, downscale and upscale, Anglo and ethnic, mainstream and funky, thriving and endangered.
Which means that the neighborhoods of the Manor/I-35/Airport triangle have really been all these things at the same time. And, as the region gets squeezed between the New Mueller and the compact city, its fortunes may appear both cloudy and bright.
The compact-city debate has special meaning in Cherrywood, probably modern Austin's first example of an infill neighborhood. The surrounding residential areas - Hyde Park, Hancock, and Ridgetop to the west, and Blackland, Swede Hill, and Chestnut Hill to the south - were all developed, at least in part, before World War II, when most of Cherrywood was still raw land outside the city limits.
This land was primarily owned by two families whose names linger in the area, the Giles (as in Giles Road) and the Pattersons (as in Patterson Park). Mueller was erected in 1929 on land sold to the city by the Giles; it was expanded in 1940 onto the Pattersons' land, which originally held a 2,000-tree peach orchard, and which the city acquired against that family's wishes under threat of eminent domain.
The Giles felt quite differently about development. As reported in the Statesman puff piece accompanying the 1951 opening of Delwood Center, Bascom Giles - who was (ironically given current Mueller developments) commissioner of the General Land Office - and his family "foresaw a great possibility for the region in the future of a progressive, ever-growing Austin.... Their idea was not just to watch Austin grow, but to help it grow."
The Giles became the land barons of what was then Northeast Austin, building eight subdivisions, including Giles One and Two - what today we call French Place - and Delwood One, Two and Three, along with Delwood Center, Austin's first modern-variety (i.e., totally auto-dependent) shopping center. (Capitol Plaza, which usually gets that nod, was actually Austin's first shopping "mall" with regional department stores.) By 1951, enough people lived on the Giles' old pastureland to demand their own school, Maplewood Elementary.
Most of the new residents fit the demographic targeted in 1941 by the developers of Wilshire Wood: "[It] is designed primarily for gentle folk of limited budget but of unlimited good taste." These same developers also built Pemberton Heights - which quickly became, and remains, one of West Austin's toniest districts - and envisioned Cherrywood, as did the Giles, as a slightly downscale version of the same. That is, dominated by middle-class Anglos who were being priced out to the west and segregated out to the south.
From Affordable to Premium
Yet within 15 years, as Mueller boomed, the Inner Eastside declined, and the interstate slashed through to the west, Cherrywood, then more commonly known as Maplewood after the school, was already seen as "ravaged" by white flight. This came to a head in 1971, when (white) Roy Shelton, the longtime principal at Maplewood, was controversially replaced by (black) Lorraine Phillips, who likewise served in that post for many years.
The new Maplewood residents saw things differently. Looking back over old issues of the Maplewood Messenger - the newsletter produced by Maplewood Community School students, one of Austin's choicest neighborhood-history artifacts - you'll find quotes like "The neighborhood is very diverse in terms of socioeconomics. That has been good for my kids... I'm not sure where else in Austin we could have lived where my children would have this kind of contact."
That was in the early Eighties, shortly before a new land baron appeared on the scene - Brad Kittel, proprietor of Discovery Investments, who's either a hero for stabilizing a declining neighborhood, or a villain for gentrifying the hell out of it. Either way, by snapping up, rehabbing, and selling more than 100 houses in what was now called French Place, Kittel helped set up the conditions on the ground now, with an influx of younger and wealthier homeowners, escalating property values, and investor-owned property along with the attendant UT students.
"Because we're east of the freeway, we've been considered a mixed or minority neighborhood, and we're not able to attract the same property values," says Cherrywood Neighborhood Association leader George "Buzz" Avery, himself a real estate agent. "That's been going through a rapid change. We've gone from affordable to premium, and that's bringing in a different type of occupant and buyer and causing gentrification. There can be both good and bad in that."
Today, a single block in Cherrywood may be occupied by old and young, black and white and Hispanic, owner and renter, all of whom came into the neighborhood from different directions (literal and metaphorical), and will leave the same way. This reinforces the sense that dozens of different neighborhoods occupy this same space. "We have a good amount of neighborhood spirit, but people often identify just with their street," says Avery's Cherrywood NA colleague Jim Walker. "There's the Giles folks and the French Place folks and the Kern Ramble folks and the Hollywood folks and the La Fayette folks."
The New Mueller
Though the long, sordid saga of Mueller renewal has been background music in Cherrywood for nearly two decades, until recently the big issue throughout the area's streets has been the row over garage apartments, currently forbidden on most lots by city requirements. "The sides on that issue are strongly divided," says Avery. "A lot of people moved here who like it the way it is, while the other side says we need to adjust and be prepared for the future in a more compact city."
Most neighborhoods have their volatile local issues - speed bumps, off-street parking, lighted ballfields, feral dogs and cats - but the garage-apartment battle in Cherrywood cuts deeper than simple quality-of-life concerns. "Many who don't want to change would like us to remain a non-investor-based neighborhood," Avery says. "If lots can be duplexed with lenient requirements, then you get a lot of investor property. We can't say, `drive out all the investors,' as close as we are to UT. But many are looking to find ways to maintain a good balance."
Unlike what you may expect, it's generally not the old-timers who are defending the status quo, Avery says. "Most who are really vocal on the issue, on either side, are the newer neighbors who've moved in within the last 10 years," he notes. "There's an awful lot of older people, but they're passing on and leaving properties to their children, who market them looking for top dollar." This usually means selling to investors. "And since older folks don't put in the improvements new buyers are looking for - like central air - their properties go for a lower price. Then investors buy them and rent to college students for whom window units and unfinished floors are fine."
The overarching issues here - ownership, density, affordability - are all amplified by the various visions for the New Mueller. Earlier this month, the city's Mueller master-planning consultants, San Francisco-based Roma Design Group, showed maps and schemes dividing the airport's 711 acres down the middle, along a spine running roughly from Pershing Drive on the south (the current terminal entrance) to Berkman Drive in the north. This would be the core of the town-center stuff.
To the east, toward Pecan Springs, Roma placed the State's 282 acres of office buildings and parking lots. To the west, it put in new residential neighborhoods, contiguous to, and in theory an extension of, Cherrywood, though at a density far beyond what exists there now, or would exist even with a generous helping of garage apartments.
A lot of Roma's specific visions for these neighborhoods - such as 20-foot-wide house lots - will likely be dissed throughout Austin, but the whole Mueller development, residential and otherwise, causes concerns for Cherrywood. "All the uses will generate traffic, and their residential is certainly going to impact our residential, with the density they're talking about, especially if they're not priced affordably," says Walker, the Cherrywood NA's point man on the Mueller project.
"In principle, whatever an inner-city neighborhood can do for infill is good, but there's some folks who are just against that kind of density," Walker continues. "There are plenty of people in Cherrywood who want to downzone the entire neighborhood (from SF-3, which allows duplexes, to SF-2, which doesn't). It's a fence that many of us are straddling - we have some conflict between what's good for the city, in terms of planning, and what's good for us as homeowners."
State Looms Large
The impact of the Mueller-wood neighborhoods on Cherrywood may end up overshadowed by the politics of the project, especially if it morphs into yet another city versus state land-use battleground. That was certainly dramatized this past week, when RTG/Partners - the local architects planning the state's portion of Mueller - announced that, well, Roma's vision just wasn't gonna work with the state's needs. The city's heavily promoted March 4 town meeting to unveil Roma's work to the public at large has now been postposed indefinitely until the two consultants come up with a compromise.
This is the second time that Roma - who's gotten high marks so far for responding to neighborhood needs and concerns - has seen its Mueller ideas shot down by the state. Back in October, they suggested that the state could fit its nearly three million square feet of office space into half of its 282 acres, but that sensible idea went nowhere. Now, the state appears poised to invert Roma's map and claim the west side of the Mueller property, which would put its offices, rather than the residential, cheek-by-jowl with Cherrywood. "That would make our neighborhood even more transitional," says Walker, "and no doubt make the potential impact on traffic that much worse."
Visions of 38 1/2 Street - which is already a major arterial hurtling cars at high speed past Maplewood Elementary (another big neighborhood issue) - becoming Mueller's de facto driveway might be enough to start a prairie fire of opposition in Cherrywood to the state and its plans. "I don't think any neighborhood in the city gives the state the benefit of the doubt anymore," Walker says.
Walker is attempting to build a multi-neighborhood coalition now - "before we're only able to react to a bad plan, like what happened at the Triangle" - to make sure that the neighbors' and city's goals of a mixed-use, community-friendly Mueller aren't trashed by the state's designs. "Right now, Cherrywood has a whole lot of activism spread out over a bunch of different issues," he says.
"There's a bunch of Earth First! types, but they don't go to the neighborhood meetings, and there's the core of neighborhood-association types, and there's other folks who may not be that involved here, but who you run into at other meetings all over the city," Walker says. "I think if the state changes its plans in a way that hurts the neighborhood, you'll see a lot of those interests come together."